Bill Proctor, Cartoonist, Illustrator, Computer Graphics Artist


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M/V George M, 1987


For six months, I served as deck hand aboard this ship, M/V George M. This ship worked in the oil platform maintenance business out of a deep water port known as Port Hueneme (Wai-nee-mee). The port is about 80 miles down the coast from Pt Conception. M/V George M, 165 feet in length, has a displacement 1000 tons.

The ship's primary mission was to send divers down to monitor the underwater weld joints on which the structure of an oil platform depends. The divers used high pressure water blasters to clear the growth from around the underwater weld joints, from the surface to the bottom of the sea. Then they inspected and re-welded those joints that needed it.

Keeping the ship anchored close to an oil platform off violent Pt Conception takes a very special ship. George M was such a ship. She had four huge anchors, weighing, 8000 lb. each. Amidships were four massive hydraulic spools (windlass's) for the four anchor cables. Two ran forward to the bow anchors and two ran aft to stern anchors. Welded to each side of the bow was a massive rack of 12" diameter steel tubing. Similar structures were mounted to the stern for the aft anchors. Under way, the anchors were snugged up into their respective racks.

Aft of the four windlasses is the main deck. That's the dance floor, so to speak from which each mission was based. On each side of the ship, a 2" diameter wire cable ran the length of the dance floor from the windlass to the stern anchor. The cable's height above the deck matched that of a man's shin. It doesn't budge when you whack it. You learn fast and high step over the cable without conscious thought after two whacks.

The wheel house stood high atop the crew's quarters which sits on top of the forecastle. The crew's quarters consists of 4 tiny state rooms and a head (bathroom), forward, center. Behind the crews's quarters was an add-on structure, a modest room with a TV for watching recorded movies and several couches for the crew which could include a fair number of divers. On the roof of the TV room was a catwalk to a aft facing steering station. This allows the captain to maneuver the boat with a clear view of the stern which typically faced the platform while the divers were at work, 24 hours a day in shifts.

Down on the main deck, between the port and starboard windlasses there's a water proof door, the entrance to the forecastle. Immediately inside and to the right was a bunk room for 8 divers with a second bunk-room forward of that. On the port (left) side was a laundry room with washers and driers. Forward of the laundry room was large bathroom with a number of showers, sinks and toilets for the divers.

Forward of all that and to starboard was the mess hall, a large table running fore and aft, with fixed bench along the hull of the ship and another amid ships. Forward of this was the galley where the (greasy) food is cooked. The starboard side was dominated by a bulkhead (partition) for the pantry. The pantry contains shelves of food and a large freezer. It pushes the galley and mess hall toward the starboard half of the bow. The only access to the pantry is from the forward most compartment, the cooks cabin. This cabin contains a bunk and a desk and exclusive access to the pantry. It's a tiny cabin with a triangular perimeter. It was an effective arrangement.

The ship performed varied tasks between Port Los Angeles and the oil platforms along the California coast as far as Pt Conception on contract with various players in the off shore oil industry. During my tenure aboard M/V George M, I made sketches of the experience and I maintained a diary of sorts, one page of which is shown among the illustrations that follow.

M/V Wendy Starr

My brief career in the Merchant Marine began sometime back in 1986. An ocean going ship, M/V Denominator, sank off the California coast near Pt Conception. The evening news carried TV coverage showing the final seconds of the ship as it slipped beneath the waves. All the crew were rescued so the main concern was leakage of fuel oil from the ship.

The next morning, I went down to the Santa Barbara Harbor waterfront to offer my services if needed. A large blue ship, M/V Wendy Star was tied up to the main pier in the harbor. I inquired and was directed to the office of Offshore Tanker Service along the waterfront. I visited with a man named Kenny Elms. I told him I was an experienced amateur sailor and was willing to work if I could be useful. He said to me, "Can you be ready to leave in two hours." Need I say more?.

Aboard M/V Wendy Star, there was only a captain and a mate. I served as engineer and deckhand. As engineer, my job was to monitor engine oil levels and replenish it as needed. As Deckhand, it was "take orders and handle dock lines".

The dock lines, and mooring lines are typically 4" to 6" hawsers. It's manila or braided line (rope, in landlubber terms). A 6" hawser is moved about the ship by draping a single loop over your shoulder and dragging as much of the line as far as you can. Then go back and grab a loop adjacent to the first, put it over your shoulder and drag it as far as possible. It is like an inchworm, crawling along a branch. Under way, the dock lines are coiled and stored in a bin on deck. Before docking, each line must be "flaked out" which means layed out on deck serpentine fashion so that it can be paid out without snagging.

Upon departure from Santa Barbara, M/V Wendy Starr proceeded to Platform Harvest off Pt Conception, 50 miles west of Santa Barbara. The captain maneuvered the ship close to a huge buoy about 1000 feet from the platform. The buoy is attached to a 10,000 pound anchor sitting on the bottom of the sea. It is connected by a long chain of massive steel links, each one larger than a football. After a few failed attempts, the mate looped a line over the pelican hook which sits atop the buoy. The pelican hook locks the loop in its grasp and carries the load of the ship bobbing around in turbulent seas. A tag line on the pelican hook is used to release the hawser when it's time to depart.

Once tied to the buoy, the captain walks the ship sideways toward the platform using the bow thruster and port and starboard main engines,

[ASIDE: Detroit Diesel 12-71. The main engines consist of twelve cylinders in a row. Each cylinder has a 71 cubic inch displacement which is equivalent to the total engine displacement of the biggest Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Imagine 32 Harleys roaring in a a cramped, steel engine room.]

When the boat is restrained by the buoy, it is as close to the platform as it needs to be to transfer cargo. Plastic barrels filled with "dispersant" were then lowered to the ship by a crane mounted on the oil platform. When a barrel was lowered to within my reach, the crane operator would stop lowering while I swung the barrel to the location of the aft deck where the barrels were accumulating. Then the crane operator would lower the barrel the final few feet until it rested on the deck. I would detach the crane hook from the barrel and send it back aloft making sure to stay clear of the hook and headache-ball as it swung away, sometimes wildly. (the headache ball is a steel ball that connects the cable hook to the cable. It is about 1 foot in diameter. Its weight is needed to keep the wire rope cables taught. It is aptly named.

The ship was rolling in typical Pt Conception turbulent seas. The crane operator had to synchronize the load with the rising and fall of the ship. He did it perfectly except for one barrel that descended the final few feet as the ship rose up on a large wave. The barrel ruptured slightly and dispersant oozed down the side. My face began to burn, particularly my eyes, mouth and nasal passages.

After securing the barrels on deck and separating M/V Wendy Starr from the pelican hook, we rendez-vous'd with a ship named M/V Mr Clean. Mr Clean was on constant stand by in Santa Barbara to handle possible oil spills form one of the many oil platforms in the area. This was the beginning of my stint in the Merchant Marine. I was transferred from one boat to another until I ended up on M/V George M.

George M in Los Angeles Harbor

M/V George M was in L.A. Harbor when I joined the team. Our goal was to install a mooring system at an oil platform inside the enormous jetty the defines the outer harbor. The mooring system consists of a huge buoy, 8 feet in diameter, 10 feet in length, a 10,000 lb. anchor, and a steel chain with links the size of footballs. This gear was waiting for us on a dock somewhere deep in the bowels of L.A. Harbor.

Early in the morning, the gear was loaded onto the aft deck of the M/V George M using the ship's crane. As already mentioned, the crane was the type seen at a construction site. It had 4 huge tires and was secured with a web of chain, each span tensioned with a heavy duty version of a "come-along" that gives the user great pulling leverage. The first mate, Randy Ehorn, handled the controls of the crane with deft and confidence. It was surprising to see a sailor with such earthbound skills. The anchor was loaded on the George M in three separate massive hunks of steel. The anchor, chain and mooring can were assembled on the aft deck of the George M. The anchor was lifted by the crane and suspended from the stern of the ship over the water and freeing up the crane for further duty.

We then moved to the outer harbor and approached the target platform. A 4" hawser, several hundred feet long was "flaked-out" on the aft deck.

*laid out serpentine, ready to pay out as needed.

Randy drove the inflatable boat accompanied by a couple of workers. A tag line that was attached to one end of a hawser. They dragged it off the deck and scooted over to the platform. They secured their end to a leg of the platform by means of a big shackle, maybe 15 pounds worth of shackle.

As the ship moved away from the platform, it dragged the flaked-out hawser off the deck and into the water. Resting on deck near the stern was the buoy with the chain amidships. The hawser was attached to top of the buoy and the chain to the bottom. When the hawser became taught, it pulled the buoy off the aft deck with a huge splash. It dragged the chain across the deck and into the water. As the weight of the sinking chain grew, it pulled more and more violently as it was dragged off the deck and sank to the bottom. They said if a man got in the way as the chain dashed towards the stern, it would take his leg off.

Not all of the chain paid out. In fact much of it had been secured on deck before launching the buoy. Using the air tugger, the chain was paid out as the ship moved away from the buoy. The chain is supposed to run in a straight line directly away from the platform from the buoy to the anchor. When all of the chain was paid out and the anchor was hanging off the stern, a diver was sent to the bottom to see how it rested on the bottom.

It wasn't pretty. The chain was serpentine, winding around scattered boulders on the bottom. Divers were sent to the bottom in rotations. A diver would attach the hook from the crane to the chain on the bottom. Segments of chain were lifted from between the boulders and laid out straight until all that was left was the anchor, hanging off the stern of the George M. Finally, the anchor was lowered to the bottom. One final thrill as the hawser was released from the platform. The weight of the chain pulled the buoy violently away from the platform when the hawser was released. The hawser was retrieved and stowed on deck. It was midnight.

Below is a page from my (lost) logbook.

The ships of Port Heuneme

Oil "crew" boats are for shuttling oil platform crew between the Platform and shore. They have to be fast. The tired oil workers are on the clock until they are put ashore, in any weather. Crew boats displace under 1000 tons. They have two or three Detroit Diesel, 12-71 engines. They have high bows to confront the most violent seas. They have a cabin with rows of seats for the tired oil workers. There is always a long low after deck where modest cargo, gear and supplies can be transferred between shore and oil platform.

Oil "supply" boats are bigger versions of the crew boats without the oil worker cabin. They displace over 1500 tons. Their basic function is to carry "mud" to the platform. (see "Chesapeake Seahorse" below) The mud is pumped from the supply boat to the platform and then down into the well to force oil up somewhere else.

Numerous oil crew boats, supply boats and various ocean-going cargo ships tie up at the Heuneme wharf. As many as 8 ships end to end and occasionally, rafted up three deep (2 or 3 ships, side by side).

M/V George M tied up at the wharf in port Hueneme to load and unload gear and supplies and sometimes to lay idles between jobs. From the deck of the George M, I drew these rough sketches of M/V Anona, M/V Strider Isis, and this un-named supply boat.

The Dance of the Behemoths

Aboard each of the ships tied up at the wharf, a crew had to be ready to move the ship at any time, day or night.

At any time, word could be radioed to the bridge of all of the ships at the wharf that a huge automobile transport ship was about to arrive from Japan or South Korea. What followed was the dance of the behemoths. All along the wharf, massive engines were fired up, massive dock lines were cast off and the ships maneuvered over to the Northern side of the harbor. The ships would slowly circle or figure 8 or U turn for hours until the automobile transporter was tied up at the wharf. After this it was a game of musical chairs to see who could get back to leftover part of the wharf. This is when the raft-up could grow to 3 ships abreast.

Pt Conception

A job at Pt Conception would begin by moving equipment and supplies from the International Dive Service warehouse to the wharf in Port Heuneme, and then onto the decks of the George M.. Often we used the ship's crane to load things like coils of 6" hawser, a compressor, pallets loaded with supplies, an ROV, arc-welding power supply. The ship's crane was not really part of the ship but was a four wheeled machine for on shore construction work. It was rolled onto the aft deck of the George M and chained firmly in place.

After the George M was loaded and ready to go, the crew would eat dinner at dusk and hit the sack until midnight. A midnight departure time would put us at Platform Harvest at dawn. During long runs, the crew would gather in the wheel house, chatting and watching the radar by night and the horizon by day, listening to the traffic on the hailing channel, ch16.

We arrived at dawn. An eight inch flexible pipeline ran from the platform 1000 feet to a buoy. It had been used to transfer fuel between the platform and an ocean going tanker. Our job was to retrieve the pipeline. As was frequently the case, the first step was to launch the inflatable. As soon as we got a line in the pelican hook, the inflatable was lowered over the side. With waves tumbling all around, Randy Ehorn, first Mate of the George M, hopped in the inflatable and starting pulling furiously on the cord of the outboard motor. After a period of futility, Randy detached the outboard engine and handed it up to the guys on deck. The back-up outboard engine was passed down to Randy and the job was under way. Randy began attaching inflated rubber spherical floats on to the pipeline at a separation of 20 to 25 feet. To be secured to the pipeline, each float had be have about 6 feet of yellow poly-pro spliced onto to the eyelet on the float. I spent the rest of the day and most of the night splicing polypro until my fingers were raw. In the illustration below, the floats can be seen in a the bin in front of the crane.

By 3 am the entire length of the pipeline was outfitted with orange floats. A line was attached from the ship to the end of the pipe line which was then detached from the buoy. The end of the pipeline was maneuvered to the stern within reach of the crane. It was hauled up on deck. Randy and I got in the inflatable and ran to the platform. We were to grab the platform end of the pipeline when the platform crew let released it to fall into the ocean.

We rose and fell in 6 to 8 foot seas we raced toward the platform. The lights of the ship sparkled across the turbulent water and often disappeared from view behind a wave as we proceeded. When we got to the platform, the pipeline was released and fell into the water. Randy sped into position and I grabbed it. We turned and headed for the ship on the downwind side of the pipeline. The pipeline began to drift downwind on top of us. Randy sped up and altered course downwind of the George M. For a moment it seemed as though things could go horribly wrong. But the outboard pushed us out of harm's way.

Encounter with M/V Chesapeake Seahorse

A month later, "George M" had both bow anchors set to the west of Platform Hermosa, also offshore between Pt Conception and Point Arguello. Two 9" hawsers secured our stern to the horizontal crossbeams of the platform. For a few days, we had divers down, working the legs of the platform. But the seas were building as a major storm approached. The divers were called in. Two men were put on the platform to release the hawsers.

At that time, a supply boat named "Chesapeake Seahorse" pulled in between a mooring buoy and the platform as is the procedure for pumping "mud" up to tanks aboard the platform. Subsequently, the mud is forced down the wellhead, forcing oil up somewhere else.

The captain of the "George M" hailed the "Chesapeake Seahorse," "Sir, we are pulling people off the platform and then we'll be hauling anchor. Could you please wait a few minutes until we are out of here. I'm afraid we might drag anchor with you in so close."

For a long time there was no reply. Then the Captain of the Seahorse came back with this terse reply, "I reckon if you drag anchor, it's your problem."

Meanwhile, the mate, Randy Ehorn, was in the inflatable boat, holding station in dangerous proximity to the platform, riding up and down 25' swells. The bow was pointed towards the platform as Randy worked the outboard motor forward then backward maintaining distance and orientation in the chaotic ocean. Two of our crew were waiting on a landing below the main deck of the platform. A rope hung down within reach of the men on the landing. When the inflatable rose to the top of a swell, a crewman swung out on the rope over the inflatable. He dropped a foot or two into the boat. The boat swiftly descended into the trough between swells and then rose again. The second crewman deftly dropped into the inflatable. The timing between the crewman swinging out from the landing and the rising boat was perfect. There was a shocking contrast in scale, the diminutive inflatable descending into a trough and the behemoth "Chesapeake Seahorse" towering above on the crest of a 25 foot wave.

Had the inflatable contacted the landing, it would surely have capsized, creating a nightmare under the oil platform. Grace in the face of death made it all go smoothly.

The Perfect Storm: December 16, 1987

Aboard "George M", deck hand is the lowest ranking crew position. The deck hand takes the graveyard watch, midnight to 4:00 am. All that is required is to wake up the captain if something happens. Occasionally he walks to the deck and checks the anchor lines and hawsers, checks the generator oil pressure, frequency. To stay awake, I kept myself busy dusting and polishing everything in sight on the bridge (the pilot house) and listening to the weather radio repeat the forecast over and over.

One night the forecast grew ominous. When the watch began, the weatherman was calling out a small craft advisory (winds 25-38 mph), typical for Point Conception. But this soon changed to a gale warning (winds of 39 to 54 mph). By the end of the watch, it was calling out storm warning (winds of 55 to 73 mph). At 4:00 A.M., I woke up the job supervisor, Steve Simpson. That was my job. I offered him a word about the forecast. That was not my job. It was a mistake. He roared at me, "I don't give a flying f... what the the f...... weatherman says, I'm not gonna let the a little shitty weather mess with this job." "OK boss."

We were tied up on the East side of platform Harvest off Point Conception. Our two huge bow anchors were set further East of "George M." Our stern was pointing West, the same direction from which the swell was rolling with increasing intensity. It was getting rough and the divers were complaining about banging into the platform at the mercy of the surge. Steve called in the divers and Randy was preparing to shuttle some crew members to the platform to detach the hawsers.

As each swell rolled under the stern, it lifted the ship and stretched the hawsers tight. As the swell rolled under the ship, it settled into the trough and the hawsers relaxed. A resonant circular motion was established. It grew more and more violent as time went by. You could anticipate the inevitable. The hawsers were repeatedly bearing the brunt of this 1000 ton ship as it surged away from the platform only to be jerked back. I took cover behind one of the windlasses well before the hawser snapped. As I feared, it broke near the platform and came hurtling towards the ship like a 2000 pound rubber band. No one was hit and no damage to the ship was incurred. In fact, our departure was expedited by the mishap.

We proceeded to Coho Bay which is generally protected from the weather off Point Conception. We spent the evening hanging on a mooring can belonging to the Coast Guard. By midnight the raging weather was coming at us from the South East. Coho offered no protection in that direction. There was one option. Leave Coho and head South East, directly into the weather.

Survival of the ship depends on keeping the high bow pointed into the oncoming waves. The ship would surely roll over if it got sideways in the trough. I went into the rudder room behind the engine room. Everything was massive. Two rudder posts were constrained by steel connecting rod as big around as a man's arm. A hydraulic piston positioned the array. I thought about the little switch far away in the pilot house. The one that controls this hydraulic piston down in the bowels of the ship. If something disrupted the wire from the pilot house to the rudder room... "Don't even think about it," I said aloud.

The waves had grown to 30 feet. Pushed by howling 70 mph winds, they exploded on our bow. You couldn't look at them directly. It was like looking into a fire hose. The forward looking windows on the bridge were being blasted with so much water and spray as to make them useless. Looking out the side windows of the bridge, even in the blackness of the night, you could see the tumbling foam as great walls of black water collapsed while jets of spray filled the air. The giant bow anchors sounded like they would smash through the hull into the galley each time the ship plunged into a wall of water. We normally moved at 12 knots. We were slowed to 2 knots.

Most of the crew sat somewhere in the pilot house, hanging on to something as the ship rose and fell as much as 40 feet. Men stared blankly into the shadows cast by the light of the radar. Through the wee hours of the night, we listened to one side of a grim dialog between the US Coast Guard and some frantic, seemingly doomed people on a crippled sailboat somewhere in the turbulent blackness. The Coast Guard has remote listening and repeater stations throughout the region. Even though we couldn't hear the sailboat, the Coast Guard transmissions usually repeat what they think they heard the panicked boaters telling them about their condition, their injuries and their prospects for survival. We all knew that if anything went wrong with the George M, it would be us pleading for help.

I decided to go out on the aft deck. It was awash with 3 to 4 feet of boiling water, mostly foam. I hung on to various solid protrusions and made my way to the stern where the rubber-wheeled roll-on crane was stationed. It was secured by a web of 5/8" chain, each strand individually tensioned by a stout come-along tool. Collectively, the web of chain compressed the stiff springs that comprise the cranes suspension almost all the way to their limit. Almost, but not all the way. Each time the ship lurched, the springs compressed the rest of the way slacking the chain strands of the web. Next, the springs expanded until they violently yanked at the chains creating the perfect mechanism for breaking chains.

Had the crane rolled off the stern, "George-M" would likely have capsized in 30 foot seas. Back on the bridge, I mentioned this someone. He said "you shouldn't have gone back there."

The following day, the only thing that had changed was that it was light and I could see the ship that had been running along side us throughout most of the night as it plowed through monstrous waves. That allowed me to draw the rise and fall of the ship in the wind and 30 foot seas.

Bill Proctor
6 Harbor Way #105
Santa Barbara, CA 93109